religion

TJ_grave

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia – There is a grave-spinning serendipity in the fact that I began this week at the resting place of Thomas Jefferson. At the foot of his home, Monticello, lies the walled-in family graveyard over which the obelisk above stands sentry. Its all-caps inscription reads:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the
Declaration
of
American Independence
of the
Statute of Virginia
for Religious Freedom
and father of the
University of Virginia

The Supreme Court cited that religious freedom statute Monday, along with another writing that associates Jefferson with the concept of separation of church and state. But in Monday’s judgment in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the citations did not appear in the opinion for the Court by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, which held that the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution was not offended by the practice of opening meetings of an upstate New York town council with a prayer.

The citations occurred, rather, in the dissent that Justice Elena Kagan wrote on behalf of herself and 3 other Justices.  Contending that the principle of religious neutrality dates to the Constitution’s founding era, she cited the United States’ 1st, 3d, and 4th Presidents as examples of leaders who “consistently declined to use language or imagery associated only with” Christianity. She continued:

‘Thomas Jefferson, who followed the same practice throughout his life, explained that he omitted any reference to Jesus Christ in Virginia’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (a precursor to the Establishment Clause) in order “to comprehend, within the mantle of [the law’s] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”’

Then quoting Jefferson’s Virginia statute – for the principle that “opinion in matters of religion … shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect … civil capacities” – Kagan articulated the dissenters’ view of what the Constitution requires:

‘Here, when a citizen stands before her government, whether to perform a service or request a benefit, her religious beliefs do not enter into the picture. … The government she faces favors no particular religion, either by word or by deed. And that government, in its various processes and proceedings, imposes no religious tests on its citizens, sorts none of them by faith, and permits no exclusion based on belief. When a person goes to court, a polling place, or an immigration proceeding—I could go on: to a zoning agency, a parole board hearing, or the DMV—government officials do not engage in sectarian worship, nor do they ask her to do likewise. They all participate in the business of government not as Christians, Jews, Muslims (and more), but only as Americans—none of them different from any other for that civic purpose. Why not, then, at a town meeting?’

It is a question Mr. Jefferson himself might have asked.

seanross2Serendipity found my students and I rereading the unvarnished story of Philomena Lee this week, just before the Hollywood film Philomena competes in Sunday’s Academy Awards.

The film is lovely, warmed by on-screen chemistry between Judi Dench, who plays Lee, and Steve Coogan, who plays journalist Martin Sixsmith. Bits of humor between them smooth the sharp edges of Lee’s search for the child she’d given up for adoption many years earlier.

The real story is a bit more raw: “The Catholic church sold my child” reads the headline of a 2009 news article by Sixsmith, published when his book on Lee was released in England. The article recounts how a 1950s Irish family sent Lee, then 18, pregnant, and unmarried, to a Mother and Baby Home at a Tipperary nunnery. There she gave birth. There too she was compelled to put in three years’ labor, and, eventually, to give up the son she’d helped care for till he was a toddler. Sixsmith writes:

‘Early on in the search I realised that the Irish Catholic hierarchy had been engaged in what amounted to an illicit baby trade. From the end of the second world war until the 1970s, it considered the thousands of souls born in its care to be the church’s own property. With or without the agreement of their mothers, it sold them to the highest bidder. Every year, hundreds were shipped off to American couples who paid “donations” (in reality, fees) to the nuns. Few if any checks were made on the suitability of the adopting families – the only condition laid down by Archbishop McQuaid was that they should be practising Catholics.’

seanrossSilence enveloped the decades-long practice. Even International Child Law, the circa-2010 British text that we’re using in my Children & International Law seminar, makes no note of it: though these out-of-Ireland adoptions occurred just an island away, the book’s chapter speaks of 1950s intercountry adoption solely in the context of U.S. adoptions of children born in wartime Korea.

This may change, as Lee has helped found The Philomena Project, committed to push, in Ireland and in the United Kingdom, for legislation that would ease access to adoption information. (credit for undated photos, of the Mother and Baby Home where Lee was placed, courtesy of the Adoption Rights Alliance, which is working with the Project)

The Project calls for justice along the lines of the efforts begun in relation to another tragic Irish institution of the era, the Magdalene Laundries, the subject not only of a 2002 film, but also of a 2011 report by the U.N. Committee Against Torture. To date those efforts have resulted in an official state apology regarding the Magdalenes practices – though not yet the actual award of promised reparations, as a recent post in the Human Rights in Ireland blog detailed.

karimaLooking forward to tomorrow’s talk by Karima Bennoune, based on her book, Your Fatwa Doesn’t Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism (W.W. Norton 2013). The event, which I have the honor of moderating, will be at 4 p.m. Thursday, November 14, in the Chapel of the University of Georgia, here in Athens. Details here.

The daughter of a University of Algiers professor/activist, Karima grew up in Algeria and in the United States. She was educated at Michigan Law, and was an Amnesty International attorney in London for a number of years before entering academia. She’s now a law professor at the University of California-Davis.

Since the onset of the so-called Arab Spring, Karima has traveled through dozens of countries, in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, etc. There she’s talked with many different people of Muslim heritage; in particular, with dissidents, journalists, musicians, artists, secularists, women’s activists, and similar “outsiders.” Her book recounts how 2 powerful forces – autocratic governments, one on side, and ideologues, on the other, have squeezed out hoped-for pluralism.

I first met Karima about a dozen years ago, not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when she gave a gripping talk at an American Society of International Law meeting. She’s written frequently on issues of human rights, terrorism, etc., in popular media like The Guardian and The New York Times, and at IntLawGrrls blog. Indeed, her September 11, 2011, IntLawGrrls post entitled “Why I Hate Al Qaeda” forms a basis for a chapter in her new book.

We who are cosponsoring this event – the law school, its Rusk Center, and its student-run international law society, along with the International Law Students Association and the university’s African Studies Institute and Willson Center on Humanities – are delighted her book tour includes Athens.

sotomayorMy Beloved World is a gem of a memoir. That’s not the least because of who wrote the 300-page volume released this past January. The author is 58-year-old Sonia Sotomayor, who’s served as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court since 2009. Her recollections display a candor rare in books by high-ranking public officials.

There is, for instance, her admission of childhood relief that the premature death of her alcoholic father might end conflict and bring stability to her household, as well as her account of the ignorance with which she and her high school sweetheart entered a marriage that would scarcely last through her college years. And there are moving reflections on her subsequent life as a single person. At page 232, Sotomayor tells how various factors, including the Type 1 diabetes with which she’s coped since age 7, influenced her decision not to become a parent:

‘My nephews are all the proof I could have needed of how emotionally satisfying adoption might have been. Still, there remained the fear that I might not be around long enough to raise a child to adulthood. Ultimately, the satisfaction of motherhood would be sacrificed, though I wouldn’t say it was sacrificed to career.’

At the heart of Beloved World are Sotomayor’s stories of growing up in the South Bronx in the ’60s, in a socially conservative, extended family. Many of her relatives had journeyed north from their native Puerto Rico. Family life swirled around their matriarch, Abuelita, the grandmother with a gift for giving love and a penchant for the late-night seance.

This was a world where Spanish dominated – except in the classrooms, where English-speaking nuns kept order by corporal punishment. Sotomayor writes frankly of the routine reality of beatings and fights, in homes and schools alike. She expresses approval that a recent visit back to Blessed Sacrament showed that teachers had adopted “a more nurturing approach since abandonment of the rod,” and then remarks,”Every generation has its own way of showing it cares.” (p. 88)

Her narrative resonates beyond the subculture it describes. Having grown up not many years later among Italian relatives in northwest Chicago, I found much in Beloved World that rang familiar: how acculturation pulled at homeland languages and lifestyles; how workplaces and parishes regulated life more directly than more distant governments; how diabetes or drinking or drugs or disability could bring shame and devastation; how some children managed to succeed in the larger world (often to their families’ bewilderment), while others found failure in every world they inhabited.

Sotomayor returns again and again to this last question of resilience – of how some children move forward even as others stumble. The book’s title hints at her answer: the foremost factor in success is love. Recalling her relationship with Abuelita, Sotomayor writes at page 16:

‘I have come to believe that in order to thrive, a child must have at least one adult in her life who shows her unconditional love, respect, and confidence.’

There is more, Sotomayor makes clear. Given the gift of “selfless love” (p. 254), the child must build on it, must learn to ask help from others. “[D]on’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing,” she urges (p. 72). Sotomayor thus provides in Beloved World a string of inspiring stories about how and whom she asked, as well as the often-positive result of her asking for help. (Aspiring lawyers will welcome the consequent practice tips.)

All must be done in service of community. “There are no bystanders in this life,” Sotomayor insists (p.256); to the contrary:

‘Our humanity makes us each a part of something greater than ourselves.’